The Downsides of User-Generated Content

Written by: Adelaine Hansson


Do you think it is time to scrap that advertising budget and reduce your creative design in order to save costs by asking the users and consumers to do it? Do you want to join the ranks of the many successful companies asking for consumer generated content? It might seem like a good idea and there are a lot of positive effects of user-generated content such as tapping into the creative pool of your consumers and engaging them with your brand. However, before you start asking consumers to submit their ideas and thoughts about your brand (as many brands seem to be doing today), you should also remember that there are potential challenges to user-generated content that a company can should be prepared for. For instance, there could be negative content generated, and issues surrounding intellectual property, the law and ethical boundaries could arise. In addition, user-generated content policy still requires marketing support. In order to remind a marketer about some of these potential pitfalls, this paper will deal with the possible negative consequences surrounding user-generated content. 

What is User-Generated Content?

User-generated content is precisely that: content generated by the user or the consumer instead of by the company. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development there is no true definition that has been widely accepted, but they have defined UGC as: “i) content made publicly available over the Internet, ii) which reflects a .certain amount of creative effort., and iii) which is .created outside of professional routines and practices” (OECD, 2007, p4).

The Internet is the Perfect Forum for User-Generated Content

User-generated content is not an entirely a new concept as it has been around for several years. However, the phenomenon has recently gained momentum due to the rapid growth of internet, and the easy access to software and connectivity (OECD, 2007; Berthon, Pitt, Kietzmann, & McCarthy, 2015). With technology and internet at everyone’s fingertips consumers have acquired a substantial power to heard and can quite easily influence things like marketing and sales (Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novak, & Hofacker, 2013) and marketers both let them and encourage them. 

The Types of User-Generated Content

Due to the broad and encompassing definition of user-generated content, there are a lot of types of content generated, and there are also several related user-generated content terms such as co-creation, co-production, and consumer-generated content (Muniz & Schau, 2011). Examples of types user-generated content include: reviews (e.g., TripAdvisor), brand communities (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001) sharing ideas not necessarily only related only to the brand (e.g., Sephora), consumer generated advertising (e.g., Crash the Super Bowl), organized consumer-generated idea sessions (e.g., hackathons) and consumer-generated products (e.g., Lego, MyStarbucksIdea, and Threadless).

The Reasons for User-Generated Content / Advertising

There are many reasons why user-generated content is a positive trend for marketers; however, as this information can be easily found elsewhere, this paper will only briefly outline some of the pros.

When it comes to user-generated content in the form of user reviews and electronic word-of-mouth there can be both positive and negative effects for the company depending on what is actually said in the review. While this means some risk, word-of-mouth actually is more effective than any other type of marketing communication (Day, 1971 as cited in King, Racherla & Nush, 2014). In addition encouraging reviews can also give consumers a sense of trust in the company (since they feel the company is held accountable for their actions), which is positive for the company as well. 

However it is when users submit content in the form of creative designs and ideas such as ads that the company benefits from user-generated content the most as it enables the company to access greater creative ability. Moreover, a well-done user-generated ad can increase trust, cut through the clutter, receive higher engagement from consumers and is often seen as being of better quality (Lawrence, Fournier, & Brunel, 2013). 

In addition, companies can find economic value such as reduced costs, functional value related to the product and improvement of the product, and social / reputational value related to their active communication with the consumer (Piligrimiene, Dovaliene, & Virvilaite, 2015). There has also been research indicating that user-generated products actually perform better than in-house generated products in different KPI’s (Nishikawa, Schreier, & Ogawa, 2013). Essentially, user-generated content resonates with consumers, further encourages word-of-mouth, gets their trust and also verifies the consumers importance to the company 

Two Examples of Successful User-Generated Content


  • Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Contest 

 The Doritos Crash the Super Bowl is an excellent example where a company was very successful with user-generated advertising (Lawrence, Fournier, & Brunel, 2013). For several years Doritos has run a competition for the most creative Super Bowl Ad and received many original and funny submissions by users hoping to see their ad on the Super Bowl (Monllos, 2016).


  •   Threadless

The company Threadless has also been very successful with user-generated designs where the whole company is actually founded upon the consumer-generated concept (Burkitt, 2010). The company is based upon consumers submitting their t-shirt designs and then voting upon the best ideas submitted that the company then print and sell (Threadless, 2016). It is essentially a community where unknown artists have the opportunity to see their art realized and get a cash award as well (Burkitt, 2010).


The Negative Aspects of User-Generated Content to Take into Account

1. Possible Harmful User-Generated Content

While there are many positives associated to user-generated content, a company interested in using this concept need to be aware that there are risks to take into account as well. When a company opens up the doors for users and consumers to submit their ideas, both positive and negative ideas may be submitted and content that is harmful towards the company may gain traction as well. Once the brand invites marketing as an open source activity, the customer now has the possibility to hijack the brand, make parodies and expose shortcomings and weaknesses (Fournier & Avery, 2011). 

  • An Example of Harmful User-Generated Content

 Chevy Tahoe, 2006         
An example of undesirable user-generated content is when Chevy encouraged consumers to create their own ads of the Chevy Tahoe in 2006. They hoped the user-generated content would be successful and generate positive movement; instead, users ended up mocking the Tahoe truck and gained enough publicity to be featured in the news (Bosman, 2006).


2. User-Generated Content Requires Marketing Support

However, marketers also need to be aware that in order to find those high quality ads, a lot of content that is of poor quality or without very creative ideas will be submitted as well. It is simply a hope that users will generate something original and useful to the company and that means reviewing all submissions.  In addition, to get high quality content and to manage the process, the user-generated content campaign needs marketing support and advertising to generate excitement. It also requires that the consumers feel passionate enough about the company to want to create content (Pulizzi, 2011). This means that not every company is suited for user-generated content and the company need to consider who its customers are. Not every company has the profile like Doritos. 

The Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl campaign offered the winner one million dollars and those who came second and third one hundred thousand dollars (Monllos, 2016). The cash prize along with the fame stemming from a high profile brand and event attracted both amateurs and professionals who were able to create high quality ads. The company received approximately 4500 ad submissions (Monllos, 2016). The winner of the 2016 competition was a professional director (IMBd, 2016) and one of the top 3 submissions also featured the famous actress Doris Roberts.

3. Considering the Intellectual Property of the Consumers  

When a user submits a great idea, the marketer cannot forget that the idea was ultimately created by the user and as such can be considered intellectual property which can bring some complications (Berthon et al. 2015). Berthon et al. (2015) define consumer-generated intellectual property as “consumer-generated creations of the mind that build upon, change, improve, or repurpose existing commercial offerings and/or platforms…” (p.46). What complicates things “is that owners of proprietary offerings tend to assert that they have the rights to these innovations, while creative consumers would argue that these works were the ‘creations of their minds’” (Berthon et al. 2015 p.46). This can lead to conflict between the money and control aspect from the company and the emotional attachment the consumer/producer has to the idea (Berthon et al. 2015) and a company needs to be ready to manage these types of issues before it becomes costly. 

4. Legal Issues

Companies engaging in user-generated content campaigns also require an awareness of the legal issues that are possible to ensue. Other than the intellectual property consideration, (OECD, 2007; Berthon et al. 2015) there are also questions about copyright and infringement issues (UCG Principles, n.d.) and questions about who is liable for third-party content if it proves to be false, improper or harmful (Mon, 2010). This can become tricky and a whole book was written in 2007 about these types of issues by Hietanen, Oksanen, and Valimaki (2007) to help readers get an overview of legal, business and policy issues surrounding community created content.

  • An Example of User-Generated Content Creating Legal Issues

 Quiznos vs. Subway (2007)

 To illustrate part of the complexities that can arise when asking for user-generated content, in 2007 Subway sued Quiznos over a contest where Quiznos had encouraged consumers to submit videos showing why Quiznos was better than Subway (Mon, 2010). Subway sued Quiznos arguing that it had encouraged false claims by consumers while Quiznos argued that under a specific law, they were not responsible for content submitted by third parties (Mon, 2010). 


5. Ethical Issues

Other important issues to consider are also ethics. Behaving unethically will most likely backfire and make the company lose customers.  Other than the common internet-related ethical behavior such as privacy issues, there are some specific user-generated content policies to think about: 

  1. Unreported Endorsement: If a company endorses a consumer to talk about the brand positively this should be disclosed or it is considered unethical (Vinjamuri, 2011).
  2. Improper Anonymity: It is also considered unethical for a company or a person within the company to review the brand positively or review another brand negatively, without mentioning the connection to the company (Vinjamuri, 2011).
  3. Working the Consumer: Creating ads or designs take time and is something that real creatives should be paid for when they are the ones participating in the content and some contests are basically them working for free (Vinjamuri, 2011). Moreover it is highly unethical when companies do not pay for all the ideas they end up using.

What does this mean for marketers?

Considering this discussion of the possible negative implications of user-generated content, what does this mean for the marketer? All that it really means is that if a marketer wants to tap into vast pool of potentially amazing and creative ideas that the users may have, they have to be aware that complications may arise and be prepared to manage the results. For instance, companies need to mitigate possible legal complications and be ready to respond to harmful content if submitted. None of the possible consequences are unmanageable or so severe that the risks outweigh the benefits. There is a lot of advice available online, both from practitioners and academics on how to best launch a campaign for consumer-generated content and how to manage the results. It is simply a question of being prepared for both the best, and the worst. 














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